The American Negro and the World War
How the Negro is Proving His Worth in the Army—Negro Officers
and Negro Regiments—The Point of View of the Negro in the Present Crisis

By Robert Russa Moton
(Major Moton succeeded Dr. Booker T. Washington as principal of Tuskegee Institute, after having
been for twenty-five years associated with Hampton Institute)

[The World's Work, May 1918]

There have been so many marvelous and unexpected changes in the mental attitude of stronger groups toward weaker ones, and so many efforts to bring about universal democracy, that the Negro himself has experienced much more of a genuinely friendly attitude toward himself from the white race. He has also found so many more doors open to him than hitherto, until he sometimes wonders what it all means. Many sincere people had, just prior to, as well as at the beginning of the war, wondered whether the Negro, because of the many limitations which, as a race, he experienced in this country and the protests which he frequently uttered, would allow himself to become identified with the disloyal elements of this country and fall an easy prey to German propagandists. Others wondered whether Negro leaders would unconsciously or willfully encourage their people to assume an indifferent if not wholly hostile attitude toward the country. But educated and patriotic Negroes knew that these anxious qualms were due rather to lack of knowledge and understanding of Negroes. As a matter of fact, without advice or counsel from any organized body, official or otherwise, the educated Negroes, professional and business men and educators generally, showed themselves as loyal and patriotic as any other Americans, and not only counseled their people to be loyal, but urged them to avoid loose expressions even in jest which might lead others to misunderstand. Not only so, but they urged their people to raise food, to buy Liberty Bonds, to respond to every other demand of the Government, and to serve along any lines that would help in the struggle that was being waged for humanity. Negroes, as other citizens, responded with enthusiasm that is now proverbial.

One Negro fraternal organization, the Mosaic Templars of Arkansas, purchased $80,000, worth of Liberty Bonds, and throughout the South more food stuffs were raised by Negroes than ever before in their history. In the appeal from the Food Administration for conservation or saving of these food products for man and beast there was a response such as has never before been witnessed. It is reported by families who employ Negro domestic servants that they have never known their cooks to be more thoughtful and economical than at present. Chancellor D. C. Barrow of the University of Georgia, reported that the Negro cook who had been in his family for a great many years, and who was inclined at first to take the matter of saving as a joke, had come to the point where she was preparing and serving the family dainty, appetizing, nutritious meals from the leftovers and took great delight in so doing. This is the opinion of scores of other people with whom I have talked regarding this matter. Negroes in their own homes, from the lowliest cabin to the best Negro residence, are vying with their white neighbors and their country in helping our government in this struggle, by saving food, and practising every economy.


It is notorious that when President Wilson asked for 70,000 volunteers, in many cities the Negro volunteers were out of proportion to their percentage of the population. Investigation in three cities has shown that these Negro volunteers were not doing so in a thoughtless, adventurous way, for many of them had jobs and reasonably comfortable homes, but they felt it their patriotic duty to offer their services to their country. In several cities where Negroes volunteered for the Navy, they were frankly and abruptly told that Negroes were only wanted for the mess departments. Many of these same men went from the navy recruiting station to the army and volunteered their services where they could be assigned to direct combative service. When the War Department, as a result of the earnest and persistent efforts on the part of colored people and their white friends, opened a camp for the training of Negro officers at Des Moines, Iowa, and asked for 1,200 Negroes to offer their services for training, notwithstanding the fact that it was less than 30 days, the required number reported for three months' training. Out of the number that took the training, 625 received commissions. Some people have ventured the suggestions that this present crisis is an opportune time for the Negro to demand "his rights," but subsequent developments have shown that the Negro, while clearly conscious of what he considers his rights, has been most earnest and persistent in his efforts to be granted the chance to do his duty by his country. The leaders have felt that that was sufficient for the present. Just now the important thing is the opportunity to serve in the great struggle for democracy.


Major Thomas B. Spencer, who is on the staff of Gen. C. C. Ballou, of the 92d Division, a division to be composed of Negroes, has been making a tour of Negro schools and colleges of the country with a view to selecting four or five hundred men for a particular branch in this division. At every school visited he has been asking for men who were below the draft age. He has received a most hearty response in volunteers from practically every school to which he has gone. At Tuskegee Institute thirty of the upper class men with whom he talked offered their services and left within 48 hours for Chillicothe, Ohio, where they are now being trained. About one hundred thousand Negro soldiers are under arms at the present time, as follows:

These troops are divided among many states and many regiments. They are in the infantry, the cavalry, and in considerable numbers in the National Guard, not only in Southern States but also in Northern and Western States. In many instances their officers are men of their own race, but white officers assigned to Negro regiments are almost invariably pleased with their men, and convinced that they are excellent material of which to make soldiers. The Negro is ordinarily proud of his uniform, falls readily into the discipline so necessary to military proficiency, and when occasion demands, he is faithful to his trust even against overwhelming odds. He is of the, stuff from which good soldiers are made, and properly officered he becomes a soldier in the best meaning of the word. About 75,000 Negro men were called in the first draft, making as stated, a total of about one hundred thousand men. This, however, is not the largest number of Negro soldiers who have been under arms, for in the Civil War, 178,000 black men bore arms on the Union side.

Including those who were commissioned at the officers' training camp at Ft. Des Moines, those who were already officers in the four regiments and companies, there are now about one thousand Negro officers in the United States Army.


But all of the foregoing is wholly physical. One naturally asks what is the inner feeling of these men? How do they feel about the whole thing? I have talked with many of the rank and file of Negro draftees and volunteers as well as of state guards. I talked to one group of a half dozen Negro soldiers in Atlanta, who were at Camp Gordon, I put the question something like this:

"I suppose you feel proud to wear the uniform of your country?"

."Yes," said one.

"Do you like the army life?"

"Not very well. We have not been fitted out yet with all of our equipment. I reckon we'll like it better when we git more used to it."

"Would you rather be home?"

"In some ways, yes. We would like to be home with the old folks and with our friends, but I don't b'lieve we colored folks will ever git a chance again like this to serve our country, so for our own race and our country, we feel it's our duty to go."

I talked with men also at Camp Meade, in Petersburg, Virginia, and from the two camps at Newport News—Stuart and Hill. These gave similar answers, the language sometimes crude, but all expressing the same loyal spirit. A colored man who was made a captain at Des Moines leaves an aged mother to care for four children, his wife having died a few years ago. "I could probably resign in view of home conditions but my country is first. I have made ample provisions by insurance, etc., for my mother and children so far as I am able. I feel my country needs me, and I must help my government in the training of these untrained colored soldiers as well as leading them in battle for the protection of our own flag," this man told me. I got a similar expression from a very prominent Negro lawyer and physician, now an officer in the Ohio National Guard. Thousands of black mothers and wives and sisters, to say nothing of fathers, have wept as these men have left home, and very few, if any, have raised a voice in protest on account of the past unfairness which the Negro has had to undergo.


Mr. Samuel Gompers, of the American Federation of Labor, expresses what in my opinion is not only the Negro's sentiment throughout the country but what is becoming the true American sentiment, when he says:

"What will come out of the war for labor? In a word, emancipation from every vestige of wrong and injustice. Out of this war the men of labor of the democracies of the world will come, standing upright; no longer like the men with the hoe. There is a new concept among mankind—the question 'Am I my brother's keeper?' this war and the democracies of the world are going to answer in the affirmative. If I have read history right there has never been any great struggle in the history of the world that has not had its baptism in blood. And the great cause of human liberty and justice is being baptized in human blood; and the spirit of freedom, of human justice, of human brotherhood, will triumph here, as in Europe, I ask you to believe in the loyalty of the great mass of the people who toil."

And Secretary Daniels, a Southerner, expresses the same democratic idea with equal force, when he says:

"We have done more for democracy in six months of war than in six years of peace. Our soldiers who come back from France aren't going to be anything but men. For in this war we are establishing a new spirit of universal equality and brotherhood. Too long has America been enslaved, too long has caste been enthroned. Kings will be relics, thrones will be in museums, here and abroad."

No finer tribute has been paid the Negro soldier than by Colonel James A. Moss, who recently said;

"Understanding the Negro as I do, and knowing his responsibilities as a soldier, I consider myself fortunate in having been assigned to the command of a colored regiment. Of my twenty-three years' experience as an officer, I have spent eighteen with colored troops, having commanded Negro troops in the Cuban campaign, and in the Philippine campaign, so that what I say about the Negro soldier—my faith, my confidence in him—is based on long experience with him in garrison and in the field; in peace and in war. I do not hesitate to make the assertion that if properly trained and instructed, the Negro will make as good a soldier as the world has ever seen. The proper training and instruction of the Negro soldier is a simple problem—it merely consists in treating him like a man, in a fair and square way, and in developing the valuable military assets he naturally possesses in the form of a happy disposition, pride in the uniform, tractability, and faithfulness. Any one who says that the Negro will not fight, does not, of course, know what he is talking about.

"The first fight I was ever in, the battle of El Caney, Cuba, July 1, 1898, I had Negroes killed and wounded all around me, 20 per cent, of my company having been killed and wounded in about ten minutes' time, and the behavior of the men was splendid. At no time during that, and in subsequent fights, did my men hesitate at the command to advance or falter at the order to charge. I expect my colored regiment to be fully as well drilled, as well instructed, as well behaved, and as good fighters, as any other regiment in the National Army. Lest some might think that what I have to say about the Negro soldier is only the fulsome words of a "Yankee" Negro-phile, let me say that I am a native Louisianian who did not leave the confines of the State until I went to West Point at the age of eighteen."


We have had no finer interpretation of the fundamentals of democracy than from our own President Wilson, and the appointment of Mr. Emmett J. Scott, Secretary of Tuskegee Institute, as Special Assistant to the Secretary of War, is evidence of a growing faith in the Negro race and in its capacity for citizenship. Secretary Baker, in his telegram to the Chicago Colored Branch of the National Security League, said of democracy:

"After all, what is this thing we call 'democracy' and about which we hear so much nowadays? Surely it is no catch phrase or abstraction. It is demonstrating too much vitality for that. It is no social distinction or privilege of the few, for were it that, it could not win the hearts of peoples and make them willing to die for its establishment. But it is, it seems to me, a hope as wide as the human race, involving men everywhere—a hope which permits each of us to look forward to a time when not only we, but others, will have respective rights, founded in the generosity of Nature, and protected by a system of justice which will adjust its apparent conflicts. Under such a hope nations will do justice to nations, and men to men."


When one talks face to face with such a man as Colonel E. M. House as well as other men, newspaper editors, Southern and Northern, as well as certain French officials, as has been my honor and pleasure to do during the past few months; when one remembers that France called to her aid her black troops from Senegal as well as her thousands of black Arabian troops, and when we remember how France has treated these men, not as black men, but as soldiers and patriots who gladly placed their lives at the service of their country, permitting them to have, equal share in the blessings and privileges of French democracy in proportion as they have measured up to democracy's requirements, the Negroes of America feel that the world is going to be made safe for democracy. When through the discipline which it is now undergoing, it is stripped of arrogance, selfishness, and greed, and when those who arrogate to themselves the making and execution of the laws, feel, as they ultimately must, that it is their patriotic duty and sacred obligation to see that the humblest citizen is given every privilege to live and to serve that is granted every other citizen within the limits of the law, then we shall have a real democracy in America. We cannot believe these sincere exponents of world democracy mean that the Negroes, 12 million now perhaps in this country, should not be given an equal chance to live, to work, to secure any education, and to ride on public conveyances, without embarrassment and under conditions equal in comfort and safety to that enjoyed by any citizen.


War is teaching us that we are inseparably linked together here in America. Races, creeds, colors, and classes all have their interests interrelated and interdependent. The test of our greatness as a nation is not in the accumulation of wealth, nor in the development of culture merely. The great test is for the fortunate to reach down and help the less highly favored, the poor, the humble—yes, even the black. My race asks no special favors and deserves no special favors. It simply asks an equal chance on equal terms with other Americans, and nothing in the Negro's past record indicates other than that he will give a strict account of his stewardship. Give the Negro race responsibility, and in proportion as he has these race responsibilities placed upon him, in like proportion will his experience broaden and his service in all lines reach a higher level of satisfaction. The social problems of America will never be solved by mobbing or segregating black men in the North, nor by burning or lynching in the South. Injustice and unfairness will never do it. The great Nazarene said: "Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these ye have done it unto me."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013.

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